You might think, given my lifelong love of movies and moviemaking, that reading biographies about filmmakers would be a big part of that. But… not really. It’s sort of the opposite. I’ve said before, in regards to guys like Woody Allen or Roman Polanski or Victor Salva or whoever, any filmmaker whose personal life was ever torrid or difficult or painful or even criminal, that I believe you have to separate the art from the artist. I’m perfectly happy not knowing much about a filmmaker’s early home life or how he treated his family or what his bad habits were, chemical or otherwise. I prefer to get what biographical information I need from someone’s movies, where it belongs.
Because let’s face it… great filmmakers reveal themselves in their films. Their interests… their obsessions… their weaknesses… their habits… all of it adds up to a portrait of how this person filters the world, and that’s about as revealing as it gets. Even impersonal big commercial guys who have a deep body of work start to show up in very recognizable personal ways in their films if they keep at it long enough. That’s what I love about really digging in with someone’s movies, that discovery of this new personality. Sometimes I really respect a filmmaker’s craft but I reject their worldview. It happens.
When The University Press of Kentucky sent me a press release and a copy of Nick Dawson’s new biography, Being Hal Ashby, I realized how very little I knew about this fiercely original filmmaker, this guy whose body of work as a director really resonates with me. His best film, “Being There,” is one of my very favorite films. I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s the best showcase Peter Sellers ever had. I think it’s got great work from Dysart and Maclaine and Douglas. I have a confession, though… the first time I ever took note of Hal Ashby’s name on a movie, it was because I decided that I hated him.
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Let me explain. If you take a look at Ashby’s whole career, you can see that he got smacked around by the studio system in some of his later work. As a kid, I didn’t know that Hal Ashby directed “The Slugger’s Wife” when I walked into the theater, but I did know that “The Slugger’s Wife” was incredibly bad when I walked out, and I wanted to know who to blame. That movie was a straight-up stiff, and it starred people I really wanted to like. It starred Michael O’Keefe, who was a hero of mine at the time, thanks to “Caddyshack” and “The Great Santini,” films I still absolutely adore. O’Keefe came out of the gate strong, and then ran smack into Rebecca De Mornay, who I thought was awesome in “Risky Business,” although perhaps not for the purest of reasons. And I was sort of a Neil Simon freak. I had several big volumes of his plays, the hardback collections that were published every six years or so, with the new catalog of big giant hits he’d had on Broadway. I read a lot of Simon when I was first starting to study dialogue, other writers, trying to learn about voice. I read a lot of reviews, so I knew what plays were considered “acclaimed,” and I knew that Doc Simon was a huge commercial guy who had spawned a bunch of movie adaptations and that he was pretty much able to do whatever he wanted. And he kept having hits and having film adaptations all the way into my late teens with “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Biloxi Blues”. But with “Slugger’s Wife,” that collision of those three things I liked went godawfully wrong, and I remember wondering who to blame. And I read the poster and saw Hal Ashby listed as director. And I thought, “Yeah. That’s the guy. That’s the dude who blew it. Hal Ashby’s an idiot.”
I know at this point, having seen the rest of his work (with a few exceptions I didn’t even realize I was missing), that I was wrong, and when the book arrived, I read it fairly quickly. Just tore through it. More than anything, it’s made me eager to revisit his filmography. Right now, I’m watching “Being There” on BluRay, and I’m struck anew by what a unique voice Ashby had, and by just how profound an influence his sensibilities have had on a generation of filmmakers in both the indie and the mainstream studio world.
I didn’t realize Ashby’s career as an editor in the studio system was as significant as it was, but Dawson details Ashby’s time as an apprentice editor working his way up and the way his tireless worth ethic and his relationships with other filmmakers like William Wyler and Norman Jewison led him first to an Oscar (Best Editing, “In The Heat Of The Night”) and then to directing. Dawson also lays out the way much of Ashby’s early life was rewritten and reshaped by studio publicity departments after he became successful, whitewashed. All the early rough edges that were sanitized in the official story found their way into his work, though, and Dawson’s keen detective work connects the dots in some fascinating ways.
One of the things I enjoyed the most was reading about all the films he almost made or that he trie to get off the ground. What would a Hal Ashby adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s “The Caves Of Steel” have looked like? Or his take on “Ladyhawke”? And imagine if he’d agreed to make “Warhead,” the James Bond film that ended up being released as “Never Say Never Again.” When he was in demand after “Shampoo,” he was offered films like “The Sheltering Sky” and “Havana” and “Network” that he flirted seriously with before passing, and I wonder what effect some of those projects would have had on his career path. Helped? Hurt? He always had to struggle, hustle, even after making such landmark movies as “Harold And Maude,” “Coming Home,” or “Bound For Glory.”
As much as Dawson’s book makes me frustrated when I read about Ashby’s setbacks or sad when I read about all the things he failed to get made… more than anything, it makes me appreciate just how special his work was, and how rare it was for it all to click, and I hope the book is discovered by readers who are led to really dig into what’s good about Ashby’s body of work.
There’s really no greater compliment I can offer any biography on any filmmaker than that.
Being Hal Ashby earns a permanent spot on my office shelf.
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